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BylineMaryGreen

Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

November shadows

Posted on October 31 2017 at 6:57:16 0 comments

Misty trees

It’s late autumn now, and the bright colours have muted throughout the countryside. Everything looks brown and grey, especially if we get the foggy days common at this time of year.

But this can be an attractive palette of colour, shades like an old black-and-white or sepia photograph.

The wonderful fruitfulness of this September and early October seems has gone now, though some fruit still clings to the bare trees. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a fruitful year as this year.

Autumn started normally this year, not as warm in September as last year but not unseasonably cold. So, the changes in leaf colour came at the usual times.

November starts with the old festival of All Saints or All Hallows (the night before, of course, being All Halloween or the eve of All Hallows). This is an old fire festival where fires were lit partly to burn up the debris of autumn but also symbolically to bring warmth and keep winter at bay.

The belief was that the veil between this world and the next was thin at this time, so dead people could pass through back to earth. People prayed for the souls of the dead so they would rest in peace.

It’s easy to see how this belief fits with a time when the sap is falling and the trees and plants begin to look skeletal. They haven’t quite died down yet, so the spirit of growth seems to still be around. After the autumn burning, nature can rest in peace till spring.

For the last couple of centuries, we have transferred this celebration to Guy Fawkes Night on November 5, but the spirit of it is still to make as much flame and fireworks as we can before the nights really close in.

Because of this, we think of November’s greys and brown as brightened with occasional fire and colour. Nature is like this too, with some trees reluctant to finally shed their red-brown leaves, and the hawthorn berries standing out starkly on their bare branches.

As it stayed mild, even well into October there were red admiral butterflies all over the ivy.

November is a good time to see shapes. The seed-heads of plants in the carrot family (what used to be called the umbellifers or umbrella-shaped plants) are especially good. Hogweed and angelica are both common here and look beautiful in their seed stages.

Plants which grow feathery seed cases, like thistles and willow herb, are beautifully wispy in the hedges, along with the less common and wonderfully aptly named Old Man’s Beard or wild clematis.

The trees begin to show their true shapes without their cover of leaves, making the occasional evergreens look especially green and heavy among them.

If you look closely, you’ll see next year has started already. Hazel catkins start growing in September before the leaves are shed, and are well on by now. Alder catkins come too, by the canal.

It’s a lovely time to visit a wood, as you can feel the leaves begin to be taken down into the soil to nourish next year’s growth.

Earlier in the autumn, I was in the west highlands of Scotland, finally getting my belated summer holiday! They had had a very wet summer there after a drier than usual spring.

It was mild, lovely weather, and there were more plants still flowering there than here, surprisingly, so it was still colourful.

We saw banks blue with sheep’s bit, which looks like a small scabious, and plenty of daisy-like camomile and some sea asters and even spring-flowering thrift still along the loch shore.

Heather was still in bloom, typical of those acid soil areas, though the bracken was turning a lovely golden brown. The native trees were only just turning, and the woods were like a rain forest, the trees absolutely thick with moss and lichen.

These are both signs of clean air, as well as damp and undisturbed habitat. There were fungi everywhere too, muted browns and ochres among the green moss and grey and gold lichen.

As with many highland valleys, there are big gardens around the old estate houses and castles, and the plants from these spread into the woodlands which were often planted around them.

Rhododendrons are common – and still in flower in autumn – both the rather invasive ponticum variety and lots of different-coloured hybrids.

The Michaelmas daisy is another flower that isn’t really a native but has established itself all over the area, especially on the water’s edge. The flowers were full of insects enjoying the late nectar.

There’s also the imported conifers beloved of the Victorians, like Douglas Fir and Redwood. We visited at least two gardens that claimed to have the tallest tree in Britain, in both cases Douglas Firs!

There are also many of these estates with avenues of lime trees leading to the house, again mostly dating from the late 18th and 19th centuries.

We learned that these were a secret symbol that the laird was a Catholic and therefore a sympathiser with the Jacobites, against the English crown.

Some of the most magnificent native trees were the huge beeches, but there were also big old horse chestnuts and sweet chestnuts.

It was good to see that most of the estates now leave part of their gardens to grow into wild flower meadows – as they would have been originally – rather than mowing them down as lawns.

They had been cut for winter when we were there but you could see how varied the flowers would be in spring and summer, including apparently several species of orchid, scabious and ragged robin.

The loch sides were fascinating, with shells showing the range of sea creatures from mussels and scallops to oysters and tiny barnacles. There were sea birds galore, oyster-catchers and curlews calling and gulls of all kinds.

The place we were staying had a Gaelic name that translates as “Valley of the heron”, and it certainly was. I’ve rarely seen so many herons flying over together, calling and settling on the shore. There must be a heronry nearby, where they nest.

This far north our carrion crows are replaced by hooded crows, and we saw plenty of these too. Insects were everywhere – bees, wasps and flies on the late flowers (though thankfully the midges had gone!) and lovely pond-skaters on the numerous puddles.

And there were animals. There were deer on the hills and we saw a beautiful big fox, really red at this time of year.

Best of all were the red squirrels. As I looked out of the door one morning one ran down a mossy tree next to me and sat on the grass nibbling. Somehow when they appeared I never had my camera to hand!

As always in Scotland, we spent ages gazing at a golden eagle before deciding it was only a buzzard after all.

The holiday was a reminder that the west coast is mild and lush, and that here in the middle of England it can often be colder than “up north.”

I wrote this poem after the Withybed bonfire last year.

Fireworks Night
The bonfire is just as a fire should be
Red hot and scented, reflecting in windows
So it looks as if the houses are alight.
The new moon slips towards the horizon.
Food is full of sausages and pumpkins
The drink hot and alcoholic. Neighbours
Come with their children and grandchildren
One tiny baby asleep on his mother
Girls suddenly become young women
Newcomers turning into familiar faces.
Friends bring a dog, who sits patient
Until the fireworks, then panics, as dogs should.
And what fireworks. Huge milky ways of stars,
Catherine wheels, rockets, Roman candles
Satisfyingly causing us to stand in awe.
Then the fire burns down, and we talk
Quietly about farms, and Lister engines
And singing and floods and bedtimes
Until the unspent fireworks go on the fire
For a final glorious flowering of light
And we part, walk home, having had
Something that binds us like a cobweb
Something ancient, a marking of life
As it passes into death, and back again.


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